Almanac Rugby League: NRL 2020 Grand Final: Panthers v Storm – Purple reigns over Panther parade

 

 

 

It’s all over, done and dusted for another season. The Melbourne Storm have defied the odds yet again to run out NRL premiers with their 26-20 victory over the Penrith Panthers. Guest writers Alan Whiticker (Penrith) and Jarrod Landells (Storm) offer their thoughts on the Grand Final.

 

Jarrod Landells the Almanac’s co-ordinating editor on Mondays. He has a background in pharmacy and public health, acquiring experiences around the world. He’s also a bit crazy about sport. A stint living in Queensland saw him develop a healthy interest in rugby league and a soft spot for the Gold Coast Titans. Back in Melbourne, he soon came to admire many qualities of the Melbourne Storm.

 

My split State origins and split allegiances in the Australian game seem to have coloured our resident League expert Ian Hauser’s email description of my support in the National Rugby League. While I went to a few Titans games at Robina when I lived on the Coast and hold no malice in my heart towards them, I have always held a candle for that roiling purple maelstrom on the Yarra – the Melbourne Storm.

 

In shades of Alan Whiticker’s experience, the Storm came into being when I was a boy at that impressionable age of 10.  Unlike Alan’s Penrith, country Victoria was about as far from Rugby League heartland as you could get – I could probably have only recognised one League player pre-Storm (Wally Lewis) and would have been flummoxed by the strange role played by fullbacks when I was used to the eponymous position of Stephen Silvagni and Gary Pert.

 

I have the passions of two mates during schoolyard lunchbreaks to thank for my early education. Peter was on the Broncos and Scott supported the Storm, they were the only kids at our school of 90-odd students who cared as much about practising cut-out passes as they did no look handballs. Within a short time I had an embryonic understanding of how the game was played and knew I wanted Brett Kimmorley, Glenn Lazarus, Marcus Bai and Robbie Kearns to play it well.

 

The decades since have been mostly fruitful for fans of Melbourne (wholesale cheating and loss of premierships in the mid-2000s aside!) and I’ve been spoilt by witnessing my side compete ten times on the last day of the season.

 

That we made it there again on October 25th 2020 felt like the most just of karmic desserts for a tested and tension filled State.

 

***

 

First set and a knock-on railroaded my focus into gear – it looked likely that the wet would play some part in proceedings. Poised to promote some hearts into mouths.

 

The initial crisis thankfully averted, it was messy, kinetic football from both sides to begin.

 

Chimbu Province’s powerful powderkeg Justin Olam lept into the fray as the nearly departed Josh Addo-Carr handed him the chance to claim a chunk of history in the corner. In absolute scenes, the shot of adrenaline turned to doubt with what looked like a failure to ground…only for a penalty try to be awarded (with the kick to come from smack in the middle) due to an illegal limb incursion. Madness. The half-filled yet boisterous bays of Panther fans bayed for blood.

 

In a frenetic first chapter, the Storm appeared at times lively, bordering on reckless, but continued to enjoy the showers of favour from the gods with a quickfire Penrith reply ruled ‘no-try’ due to obstruction.

 

Fresh from being robbed of the Dally M, skipper Cleary made what could be described a ‘not awful’ start, but clearly the Melbourne defence made it near impossible for him to help set up anything as damaging as he’d done in past games.

 

Despite the mistakes of Kikau in particular, a rollicking Panthers side made use of a series of ‘six-again’ calls to probe the Storm line and, in response, the men in purple (but mostly white) shifted like a pensioner in quicksand. It looked like a matter of ‘how soon would the dam break’?

 

Flicks, kicks and tricks within 20m from the best team of the season. The rain gone and excitement had taken its place – a blitzkrieg from the allsorts had the Storm under siege.

 

The wall held (for the time being) and the less heralded yet somewhat of a cult-hero Smith, Mr Block of Cheese, left the turf to undergo an HIA concussion test. His namesake channelled his inner accountant to slot another penalty with metronomic precision; the clearest indication yet of the difference between the young Turks from the west and the former heavyweight champ old stagers from the south.

 

Vunivalu ran the length after an aerobic intercept to add some spice into the mix and Cam put another over the bar to fortify a buffer that felt necessary for the looming second half.

 

Media and fan driven ‘G.O.A.T.’ talk has surrounded the 430-gamer, in what felt like a wink to the adoring Melbourne faithful and a cheeky dig at subjective and immaterial Joey Johns/King Wally chatter, Smith scored an audacious try right on the hooter of halftime to stir the pot.

 

44 minutes in and the buffer is tested. A Penrith penalty close to goal.

 

Then a knock-on, a wasted captain’s challenge and a moment fades. Storming sharply into contrast came Pap with a pep in his step! The try is the play of the game so far and had me starting to get comfortable – dangerous!

 

Cam missed the conversion and reminds us that he’s not ready to enter immortality just yet, if only by virtue of his minuscule mortal fallibility.

 

Minutes later, Joey Johns is in utter disbelief – and for good reason. Penrith have been gifted a try from a Yeo kick that went behind the Storm defensive line from behind the shield of a teammate. I hate say it was a sympathy call, but it was either that or plain incompetence.

 

My comfortable demeanour is leaching away as Bellamy blows a gasket in the box. Melbourne have taken their foot off the gas and are making basic handling errors to boot. No matter how well you’ve done, this coach demands better. I can’t say I blame him after seeing Penrith’s form all year.

 

15 to go and sets of six don’t come any more cookie-cutter. Cam guides the way before giving up the first of a series of professional penalties, only for the Panthers’ kick to touch to be thwarted by a leaping Pap from the third row of the stand.

 

The clock becomes more of an issue for both sides. Cleary has been far from his best but steps up to start the ball rolling to a try for Crichton followed by a conversion. Kikau has had a mare too, but when he is fouled by Hughes – who is binned – it is very much game on. B. Smith joins him on the pine and the siege is on again. Cleary, the talisman that he is, stretches for an epic skipper’s try.

 

We are left with a literal roll of the dice situation from the kickoff and my heart becomes reacquainted with my mouth – the ball flies over heads from side to side, we just need one tackle! One knock-on!

 

One intercept!

 

ONE INTERCEPT!

 

You beaauuuutyyyy!

 

The stands are silent but our hearts sing from our couches as the skies of Richmond, Cremorne and South Yarra are lit up by fireworks. It feels like a V for Victory meets V for Victoria kind of night.

 

Cameron Smith gives the best captain’s speech I’ve heard in a long time – we’ll miss him when he’s gone, but we miss him and his team already in our great city, our resolute, unbroken state.

 

My best for Melbourne: Finucane, Asofa-Solomona, Papenhuyzen, C. Smith, Vunivalu

 

Alan Whiticker, a Panthers supporter since their inception and a prolific writer on the code, returns to offer this perspective on the Grand Final. Befitting his stature among the code’s historians and his insistence on telling it as it is, Alan provided this honest appraisal of the game as well as his thoughts as to how Penrith move forward from here.

 

The young Penrith Panthers defeated in the 2020 Grand Final by a dominant Melbourne team on a wet Sunday night at ANZ Stadium, 26-20, will look back on this lost opportunity when the emotion subsides and they shake their collective heads. What the hell happened?

 

Taking nothing away from the Storm – it would have been a travesty if the resurgent Panthers had been able to force a draw in the final seconds of the match – but put quite simply, Penrith reserved their worst performance in a phenomenally successful year for the Grand Final.

 

Big game nerves? Possibly. Bad luck at crucial stages of the game? Certainly. A colossal choke? No, never … the young team with just three Grand Final games to their credit and an average age of 22 tried hard – perhaps too hard at times – but will surely learn from the experience.

 

The Panthers will rue the train wreck performance in the first half – and that’s being kind to train wrecks. Conceding a penalty try, an intercept try, and then seconds before half-time, allowing Cameron Smith to stroll over under the posts untouched after knocking the ball out his hands – it was possibly the worst 40 minutes of football for the Panthers.

 

Any hope that Penrith would settle into a more constructive pattern was dashed early in the second half when Storm fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen, a worthy Churchill Medal winner as man of the match, dashed through the Panthers defence after a scrum win and ran 70 metres to score in the corner.

 

A 26-nil scoreline could have encouraged the Storm to go for a record Grand Final they in fact own – the 40-0 loss to Manly in 2008 – but to Penrith’s credit, they fought back. Four quick-fire tries in the final 16 minutes of the match gave them a sniff of a draw, but fairy-tales seldom happen in professional sport. They didn’t deserve to get so close.

 

Melbourne are a machine, and being relocated to Albury, first, and then to the Sunshine Coast, this year merely helped to laser focus them on the job at hand. Craig Bellamy is a masterful coach with that rare ability to reimagine and rebuild his team every three-or-four years. Storm, circa 2020, may be his best achievement yet.

 

Consider these stats: The Storm have appeared in nine Grand Finals in the last 15 seasons (2006-2020). They won five and lost four, and had two premiership titles stripped from their record due to salary cap breeches (2007 and 2009). Other teams envy them because they want to be like them.

 

It’s an age-old rugby league cliché that you have to lose a Grand Final to win one, but as a lifelong Panthers fan you have to have faith. There were shades of the club’s 1990 Grand Final loss against Canberra in last night’s debacle. But Nathan Cleary just needs to remember one thing … having realised how close they actually came to winning that match, the Greg Alexander-led Penrith team came back the next year and beat the Raiders in the 1991 decider.

 

That’s what Penrith have to do in 2021 … fuse that desire to go one better, hopefully against the Melbourne Storm, and erase the memory of this loss.

 

Lastly, what to make of Cameron Smith? Some years ago, the great Bob Fulton told me Smith was ‘the greatest hooker/forward in the game … ever’.  That should now be expanded to be called the greatest player ever … the GOAT!

 

A quartet of NRL records have fallen to Smith; most career points (2,772), most games (430), most State of Origin matches (42) and most Test appearances (56).

 

Grand Final night would have been the perfect time to announce his retirement, but Smith was never one suck up all the oxygen in the dressing room. Let the team savour its moment, and any personal decisions about his future can wait for another time.

 

It seems Cam Smith, the professionals’ professional, doesn’t believe in fairy-tales either.

 

Almanac rugby league editor Ian Hauser adds his potted version: The bookies went for experience over potential and, as often happens, they got it right. It was a game of two halves, you might say but, in the end, the final scoreline flattered the Penrith Panthers. Melbourne Storm’s resolute first half defence, their ability to create and seize their attacking opportunities, and Penrith’s initial stage fright saw a 22-0 scoreboard at the break. Then Papenhuysen killed it off after 45 minutes. Something of a Panthers comeback was initiated by a Bunker howler after it awarded To’o a try that should have been disallowed for both a shepherd and going into touch before the ball was grounded. Even the hopelessly biased Nine ‘commentary’ team disparaged it! But with Cameron Smith in charge, the Storm held on to confirm for all, even their most fierce critics, that they are the club of the century to date. Beware the Panthers in 2021! Memo for 2021: Can we please have a commentary team rather than a Sydney-centric cabal?

 

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Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. It’s a good time to be a fan of Melbourne-based sides! Thanks for the invitation to contribute part of the review, Ian. A hearty congrats to your Broncos in the NRLW too.

    I’m in lockstep with you on the commentary team – I feel Rabbits may have been more than a little embarrassed at times by the pontification of Gus. But I’m sure he’s more than used to it.

    Now for the Maroons to make Gould more morose!

  2. Storm’s effort in winning the Grand Final cannot be over stated. They were utterly superb .

  3. How bloody good are the Storm?
    Too good!!
    Roy Masters’ piece in last Sunday’s Age was worthwhile reading also.

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